Book Review: Grace Defined and Defended
Kevin DeYoung, Grace Defined and Defended: What a 400-Year-Old Confession Teaches Us About Sin, Salvation, and the Sovereignty of God. Crossway, 2019. 141 pages.
2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort, an ecclesiastical council that met from November 1618 to May 1619 in the city of Dordrecht in the Netherlands. This council was convened to address errors introduced into the Dutch Reformed churches through the Remonstrants—the disciples of Jacob Arminius.
The Remonstrants were contending with several key aspects of God’s sovereignty related to salvation. Among them were issues related to election, depravity, the atonement, grace, and perseverance. The Synod sought to answer these objections with biblical counter-arguments rooted in Reformation theology. As a result, they published what came to be known as the “Canons of Dort.”
These Canons—or theological standards—were written to address the five main points of doctrine the Remonstrants were contesting. From these canons we get what has historically been referred to as “The Five Points of Calvinism,” later summarized in the 1900s as TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints). Notably, these points came about not as an exercise in theological invention, but as a response to error and an effort to “contend for the faith” (Jude 3).
In light of the significance of this Synod and the 400th anniversary of its confession, Kevin DeYoung has written what is essentially a modern exposition of the Canons of Dort. As he explains:
This book is not a biblical defense of the five points of Calvinism, nor is it a theological exposition of Reformed soteriology. . . . Think of this not as a mini systematic theology or as an exegetical exploration of key salvation texts, but as a brief, accessible commentary on the background and theology of Dort itself (28).
While I admit that I came into the book with somewhat different expectations, I was helped greatly by this “brief, accessible commentary.” So, did DeYoung accomplish his objective? I think so, for three reasons. The book is indeed brief, the book is indeed accessible, and the book is indeed a commentary—a truly helpful and edifying commentary.
NO WASTED NOTES
I enjoy playing the guitar. One thing I learned early on is that it is not so much the notes you play that make you a good guitarist; it’s the notes you don’t. German rock guitarist Michael Schenker said, “The key is making each note carry a meaning.” In other words, no wasted notes.
In just under 150 pages, DeYoung doesn’t waste a note. You have to do that when aiming at brevity, and DeYoung does a fine job of framing the historical issue by providing necessary context, while also explaining the doctrines simply and clearly. He manages to give the reader a good feel for the background without getting bogged down and a good summary of the key issues without getting overly complex.
One of the contributing factors to the book’s brevity is DeYoung’s ability to put his finger on the theological pulse of the issue without getting sidetracked.
For instance, when discussing the doctrine of unconditional election, DeYoung says:
At the heart of the debate is a straightforward question: Did God choose the elect because they would believe, or did God choose the elect so that they might believe? Or to put it another way, is divine election based on foreseen faith or according to sheer grace and God’s free good pleasure? (28).
With similar clarity, DeYoung addresses the root of the controversy related to the atonement:
The doctrine is not just about the extent of the atonement but about the nature of the atonement. Did the Son of God die to make salvation merely possible or to make people saved? That’s the literal crux of the matter (47).
Finally, concerning irresistible grace, DeYoung summarizes:
Is saving faith a gift that we can accept or deny, or is it a new principle worked in us by God’s sovereign and unfailing effectual will? That question is at the heart of Dort’s Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine (64).
This ability to identify and explain the root issue is critical to the book’s overall helpfulness, and DeYoung succeeds.
ACCESSIBLE AND CLEAR
DeYoung does not assume that the reader knows everything (or anything) about the history surrounding the drafting of the Canons of Dort. While he assumes some doctrinal understanding, DeYoung helps the reader wade slowly into the cultural and theological waters without feeling in over their heads. His introduction provides a lay of the land and as he proceeds through the various heads of doctrine, he does so with an accessible structure.
Each chapter contains the text of the Canons of Dort grouped together under various headings (or articles) with commentary interspersed throughout. The goal is not to dig deeply into biblical texts concerning the doctrines of grace, but to provide an accessible introduction to the doctrines as expounded by the canons themselves.
To aid in this accessibility, DeYoung includes appendices with the full text of the Canons of Dort (97–114) along with the Rejection of False Accusations (115–118) and the Opinions of the Remonstrants (119–128). A final appendix contains many helpful “scriptural proofs” for each of the doctrines of grace (129–130). This will prove helpful as a quick reference guide in sermon or lesson preparation. He also includes brief biographies of key figures surrounding the Synod of Dort (16–17).
AN EDIFYING COMMENTARY
Alongside his theological commentary, DeYoung opens the book with some stellar cultural commentary as well. This opening consists of an appeal for theological precision in an age of fuzziness:
We live in an age where passion is often considered an adequate substitute for precision. . . . Many of us, even Christians, have little patience for rigorous thinking and little interest in careful definition. We emote better than we reason, and we describe our feelings better than we define our words, which is one reason we need to study old confessions written by dead people. Whatever errors or harshness and exaggerated rhetoric may have existed in earlier theological discourse, this much is wonderfully and refreshingly true: they were relentlessly passionate about doctrinal truth. They cared about biblical fidelity. They cared about definitions. And they cared about precision. Praise God, they cared enough to be careful (13–14).
In my own church, we recently spent the month of July preaching on the doctrines of grace in John’s gospel. Since the sermons were done in part to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Canons of Dort, DeYoung’s book provided helpful historical context and pastoral application for the series. I gladly recommend this book to pastors and growing Christians alike. Assuming you understand the purpose of the book to be a brief, accessible commentary on Dort and its doctrines, there is much to glean here. And, as you glean, be sure to observe in DeYoung a model of how to care enough to be careful.
Let’s join him in that effort.